By Joe Taschler
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A family Ford dealership here is owned by a “nice guy” who just gave birth to her third child.
As the fourth-generation owner of Soerens Ford, Stephanie Soerens-Borkowski holds a spot in a growing demographic in the U.S. new vehicle business. She is a woman who is the dealer principal, also known as the boss.
Soerens-Borkowski has taken over leadership of Soerens Ford, a nearly 100-year-old dealership known to generations of Milwaukeeans by the tagline in its advertisements, the “Home of the Nice Guys.”
She has taken over for her dad, Bob Soerens, who now serves as a consultant to the dealership. (“Every once in a while, I still get consulted,” he said.)
“Even though he’s retired, we’re still learning this business together,” Soerens-Borkowski said. “It’s changing all the time.”
Bob Soerens says he is content in retirement. This is Soerens-Borkowski’s Ford store now.
She wouldn’t want it any other way.
The fourth of four kids, Soerens-Borkowski said none of her siblings expressed an interest in taking over the dealership, which was established in Milwaukee in 1917.
She, however, never had any doubt she wanted to be a part of the business. She started coming to work with her dad on Saturdays almost as soon as she was old enough to walk.
“I loved this business. I loved the camaraderie. I loved running around here,” she said, adding that she has done just about everything at the store from office work to washing cars to cleaning parts bins. “The only thing I haven’t done is major mechanical,” she said.
Her time in the car business also included work selling cars — Buick, Pontiac, GMC and Toyota — in Denver. “She had to go out and get her own job,” Bob Soerens said.
Time spent selling cars in another city helped prepare her to run the Soerens Brookfield dealership, which has a single brand — Ford — in a landscape where multibrand mega-dealers are the order of the day.
Single-point dealers need to set themselves apart in the marketplace, said Kerri Wise, senior director/dealer training at car-buying site Edmunds.com.
“You think about the single-point dealerships, they are typically family owned, they’ve been in business for years, they are kind of ingrained within the community,” Wise said. “You hope these dealerships thrive because they are so tied to the community.”
Soerens-Borkowski sees the dealership’s position in the marketplace as an advantage.
“We’re not a big conglomerate,” Soerens-Borkowski said. “That makes us stand apart.
“I’m a working mom with three kids.”
That also is an advantage in today’s automotive business.
“I see that as a huge benefit, not only for the culture of the dealership but also for the customer,” Wise said. “A business always has an advantage when their employee base represents and/or understands the customer base.
“It’s not just about having a woman in charge, but it brings a different perspective to the industry, which really has been male dominated since the beginning of time.”
Fewer than 8% of all car dealerships nationwide have female owners, according to Edmunds.
Women who lead dealerships are working in a tough, unforgiving business, said Michelle Primm, managing partner of Cascade Auto Group in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Primm represents female-owned automotive dealerships east of the Mississippi River on the National Automobile Dealers Association board of directors.
“You can’t have this job and do a bad job,” Primm said. “You can be black, you can be green. You can be male, you can be female.
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You can be old, you can be young. It doesn’t matter. If you can do the job, then you are accepted and you are applauded. If you can’t do the job, you are outta here pretty quick.”
Car dealers who don’t fully cater to women do so at their peril.
Women are the primary decision-makers in more than half of car-buying transactions, said Jim Tolkan, president of the Automobile Dealers Association of Mega Milwaukee. “It’s probably closer to 60%,” Tolkan said.
Dealerships are beginning to reflect that.
“Every year, more and more women are getting involved in upper management levels at new car dealerships around the country,” Tolkan said. “But there’s a ways to go.”
Diversifying the leadership ranks makes good business sense.
“It’s not just about this kumbaya, we need to be fair, let’s all hold hands,” Wise said. “But having a diverse workforce in general, whether it be gender or race or education, is important in terms of perspective, empathy and really understanding consumer motivations.
Any advantage in the market is important.
“Selling cars is a tough job,” Wise said.